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These Are Not the Facts You Are Looking For

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These Are Not the Facts You Are Looking For

I saw Sherlock Holmes die.

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In my mind, as I read "The Adventure of the Final Problem." There he went, over the Reichenbach Falls while struggling with Moriarty, and it felt pretty permanent, as death often does. It wasn't described in a first person account by a witness, but was pieced together from forensic evidence, including a note from the late Holmes. But, authorial intent and all, I assumed Holmes was dead. Had Doyle as much say in the matter as he intended, Holmes would have died that day, a hero, destroying the greatest criminal mastermind in history. And Doyle, he could have written all those great literary masterpieces he had inside.

Bond died too. I knew there were more books in the series, but at the end of From Russia With Love he has been kicked with a poison knife and is fading to black. There is no way anyone can get to him quickly enough to save his life. Rosa Klebb and SMERSH have won. This is the novel, not the movie, where Bond holds off Klebb with a chair and Romanova shoots her. In the next book, Dr. No, CPR and a doctor's knowledge of African poisons, which seems at odds with the poison described as having come from a Japanese fighting fish and reading a lot like tetrodotoxin, saves Bond. Unlikely? Absolutely. There were/are rumors that Fleming was tired of Bond, but Kennedy mentioning FRwL made it financially enticing to keep with the series.

Just Who's Running the Asylum?

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Cliffhangers and Comic Book Deaths

Bond and Holmes are not unreliable narration so much as what came to be known as "Comic Book Death" syndrome. It happens so often that, like the boy who cried wolf, the emotional impact of a death in mainstream comic books is blunted. The same device is used way too often in horror movies, when the camera pans back and the "dead" killer is gone. In the case of at least one book, Rambo, the author just announces "In my novel First Blood, Rambo died. In the films, he lives." No apologies or acrobatics needed. I don't suggest such whole scale revisions in a gaming world.

At the time of Holmes's last adventure, this was a new device, fortuitously discovered if not arrived at with foresight. Holmes's death was met with fan outrage, and like Paul Sheldon, Doyle was convinced to write more. Unlike Sheldon, he kept his foot and thumb. But he had left the ending open, maybe purposely, to come back to. Had Watson watched them tumble over the edge, ran to the side and saw them plunge into the spray below, it would have been much harder to bring Holmes back.

By the time of Bond's death, cliffhanger endings were old hat. But Fleming hadn't used them. He was usually writing on places and things he knew about and wanted a chance to share with others. Bond books tended to be grounded in reality, without the comic book extremes the movies degenerated into. So when Bond was dying, I believed it. So young and naive.

Sometimes the narrator is not misinformed. The author is lying. For the most part, as a reader, I need to believe the author is telling the "truth." Sometimes they make mistakes, as the rather famous one in Harry Potter where the Priori Incantatem of Voldemort and Potter's wands locking has James and Lily show up in the wrong order. This mistake was corrected in later versions of the Goblet of Fire. When I first read it I thought it might have been a plot point for later development, a surprise for the characters as well as the reader. But mistakes are one thing, intentional deception another.

In many cases, an unreliable narrator is drugged (Hunter S. Thompson), insane (Lovecraft, Poe, Kesey) or simply lying, by omission or commission(Christie, Nabakov.) In addition, we frequently encounter a narrator dreaming. A lot of times "And it was all a dream" gets knocked for being a cheap cop out. For the Dallas shower scene, it probably was. For some movies though, Paprika, Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, Brazil, the question of what is real adds to the exploration of the themes. We can't trust the reality of what we are being shown but we can arrive at real answers for tantalizing questions.

Characters in Search of an Author

There's an old joke: How do you know when a lawyer is lying? When his mouth is open. How do you know when your Storyteller is lying? You don't. Most games don't take place in the real world. Illusions, pscychokinetics, miracles and the unreal are all real. Your character could, at any point, be suffering under a delusion, illusion, projection, reality distortion, forced lucid dream, or other mind altering action, and never know it. Some games, like Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system, measure your sanity but even knowing the numbers doesn't tell you what is real. Psychotics and the paranoid can still be right.

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Writers and Storytellers are encouraged to "Show, don't Tell." But what do you show? A Storyteller is an improvisational playwright, armed with an outline, a back story and a sense of where things ought to head. Like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the Storyteller is charged not only with directing the play but on listening to the story the characters tell. Then using it within his or her own. A Storyteller needs to lie, mislead, misdirect, omit and with these brushes paint the truth.

Storytellers don't describe that which cannot be sensed. Storytellering is exactly where a "didn't ask, didn't tell" policy makes sense. Even if everything is as it seems, if the characters are free from external and internal reality blockers, they are not seeing everything. What's behind the door is as much a mystery as what's in the glass of the stranger at the bar. Your Storyteller is the ultimate unreliable narrator (I assume he or she is not stoned but, hey, it can add to the evening) because your Storyteller knows what you would know and how you would know it. The Storyteller reveals clues through NPC who may lie or be wrong; the Storyteller describes places and events that may be mostly hidden, icebergian projections into characters sensory spheres.

Every time a hero or master villain dies, there shouldn't be a handy ledge over the cliff. But open endings, like season ending cliffhangers can add mystery, excitement and intrigue. They work great for pulp fiction scenarios, horror adventures, intrigue vignettes and superhero campaigns, pretty much all adventure types. Maybe not quite so much for the ending of a show about mob bosses. People do like closure.

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